WASHINGTON. — Washington -- With the Clarence Thomas and Robert Gates nomination hearings still weeks away and delay threatened in the William Kennedy Smith trial, there is precious little to keep the local gossip mill grinding through the dog days of summer. A few politicians are so desperate for small talk that they actually entertain speculation that George Bush may not run for re-election.
They cite his age, his health, the stubborn recession and other domestic problems that cannot be confronted without spending money. They even include his lofty standing in polls: While any normal politician would consider such popularity a reason to keep running, the true performer wants to leave his fans applauding for more.
LTC Common sense and precedent both say this is absurd. On next inauguration day, Mr. Bush will be 68 years and five months old. His thyroid condition and accompanying irregular heartbeat are well under medical control.
Approaching 1984, there was much more reasonable speculation that Ronald Reagan would not run again. At his second inauguration, he was three weeks short of his 74th birthday. Unlike Mr. Bush, he did not jog or golf, but kept a sedate schedule. He had very nearly been killed by an assassin's bullet. His popularity rating was high, but not as high as Mr. Bush's. Yet he ran, and won by a landslide.
Since World War II, the only presidents who could have run again but didn't were Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson. Truman served almost two full terms after Franklin Roosevelt's death, and was frustrated by an unpopular war in Korea. Johnson was in the White House five years after John Kennedy was killed, could not find a solution in Vietnam.
Dwight Eisenhower was 66 in 1956, yet ran again and won by a wide margin although he had a major heart attack in 1955 and an emergency ileitis operation five months before the election. Richard Nixon ran again in 1972 and won overwhelmingly despite Vietnam and Watergate.
Mr. Bush's war, far from being a political burden, has boosted his poll standing. So far, those polls give no support to the widespread assumption that the only thing that could beat him next year is an economic crisis. Unless he is keeping a deep secret from the world, the 1992 question is not whether, but how he will run again.
Will he consider it necessary, even with an expansive lead in the polls, to use ''wedge issues'' like race to drive voters apart as he did in 1988? Will he try to run on his success abroad, as hero of the Persian Gulf and possibly chaperone of peace in the Middle East? Will he dare to mention unsolved domestic problems?
It depends on who runs the campaign. Commerce secretary Robert Mosbacher is expected to resign and become chairman, or take some top title. Bob Teeter of Michigan probably will be the hands-on manager, and other familiar GOP operatives will work with him. But there is no assurance that the key decisions will be made by this campaign staff, rather than by the White House chief of staff, John Sununu, who has called most of the political shots since Mr. Bush's election.
It is predictable that a dedicated Democrat like Texas Gov. Ann Richards would complain last week that Mr. Bush and his advisers are ''cynical political practitioners who, because they have no genuine solutions to offer, create divisive and polarizing issues that are intended to drive us apart.'' She said the White House had rejected compromise on the current civil-rights bill in order to make racial ''quotas'' a campaign issue. Mr. Sununu is blamed, or credited, for that action.
It is more surprising that an outspoken GOP operative like Ed Rollins, who managed Mr. Reagan's 1984 campaign, would talk the same way. He told reporters this week that Mr. Sununu ''sees himself as one of America's great political geniuses,'' and ''thinks the 1988 campaign was ideal, to go out and do wedge issues.''
The next election will be a referendum on Mr. Bush's first term, and he needs to offer the nation an agenda for the second term, Mr. Rollins said. The president will be mistaken to approach the 1992 election as a ''slam dunk'' instead of running scared, he added.
He and Ann Richards obviously believe that with Mr. Sununu in charge, Mr. Bush will take the political low road next year. I suspect that if strategy were decided by the president himself, he would stick to the high road, campaigning on Air Force One through Moscow, London and points far away. Unless, of course, he should slip in the polls.
Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.